It's a lesson many of us learned in kindergarten: Say what you mean and mean what you say.
So why do some companies offer what they term "lifetime warranties" — when in fact they offer no such thing?
Larry Solters, a Los Angeles marketing executive, recently encountered this linguistic sleight of hand after reporting a broken zipper on his 12-year-old Victorinox bag to the company.
Victorinox is known for its rough-and-ready Swiss Army products, including those nifty pocket knives we all owned but never needed.
"I travel a lot, maybe two or three times a month," Solters told me. "I always buy luggage with a lifetime warranty."
And usually the company keeps its promise, he said. When he had trouble with a Tumi bag in the past, Solters recalled, "they just said bring it in, and they fixed it."
But when he contacted Victorinox about the broken zipper, a service rep said by email that the lifetime warranty didn't apply.
"This would be wear from use, not a defect," she wrote. As such, Solters could pay $30, plus shipping costs, to fix the bag he originally purchased for about $350.
He replied, quite reasonably, with a request for the company's definition of a lifetime warranty.
The rep sent contract language stipulating that the lifetime warranty doesn't cover "cosmetic wear and tear or damage resulting from abuse, misuse, unauthorized repair, improper handling or common carrier damage."
Solters responded that "cosmetic wear and tear" would seem to involve a bag's appearance. A broken zipper is an actual malfunction, he said. Moreover, Solters said, he never "misused" or "improperly handled" his bag.
"I just gave it normal wear and tear over the 12 years I had it," he told me.
The service rep stuck to her guns.
"This is not a defect," she insisted. "It's wear from use. Bags will wear over time, and this is why it's not covered."
As Solters told me: "It's like the Marx Brothers. What kind of lifetime warranty is that?"
I put that very question to Victorinox. Rachael Lyon, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to answer.
She said only that Victorinox would like to "work with" Solters on resolving the problem because "customers — as well as customer satisfaction — are our No. 1 priority."
The Federal Trade Commission says that if a company advertises a lifetime warranty, it must disclose "the life to which the representation refers" — that is, it must make clear the terms of the deal.
For example, the agency says, if a car muffler is guaranteed for life, the manufacturer must specify whether this is for as long as the car runs — or only as long as you own it.
Victorinox complies with federal law by posting its warranty info online.
California law requires that any product advertised as having a lifetime warranty must have a life span of at least three years, which isn't much of a lifetime at all.
I think the issue here is more straightforward. We can probably all agree that a lifetime warranty isn't for your lifetime. It's for the lifetime of the product.
Any company thus making such an offer should be prepared to stand behind its product for as long as it remains in use — its lifetime, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as "the time during which something lasts or is useful."
Maybe that's just three years. Maybe it's 12 years. Maybe longer.
If that latitude strikes a business as too broad or generous, the answer is simple: Don't offer a lifetime warranty. Instead, offer a limited warranty with as many exclusions and weasel words as you like.
Solters may have punished his Victorinox bag while schlepping it around the country for more than a decade.
But if the company told him, as it did, that the bag was covered for its lifetime, then it seems to me Victorinox has a responsibility to address any problems that arise during its lifetime.
Otherwise, don't make such promises.
Or make a better bag.
Debit card loophole?
Speaking of potential misunderstandings, Chase bank checking account customers may have done a double take when they got a look at the latest version of their contract with the company.
On a page highlighting "important notices," the last item said that "starting on Nov. 16, 2014, the following terms will apply to your Deposit Account Agreement."
It went on to state that customers "failing to exercise ordinary care," such as keeping your debit card and personal identification number separate, "will be responsible for all authorized and unauthorized transactions."
Think about that. A lack of "ordinary care," in Chase's eyes, would leave you on the hook for any fraud you may experience.
But don't get your knickers in a twist, said Michael Fusco, a Chase spokesman.
"This doesn't affect consumer accounts," he said. "It only affects business accounts."
Consumer accounts are still protected by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which protects account holders in most cases from losing more than $50 in a fraudulent transaction. Such transactions must be reported to the bank within 60 days.
Chase could have worded its notice more clearly. But the upshot is that the change won't affect most cardholders.